[Federal Register Volume 74, Number 214 (Friday, November 6, 2009)]
[Proposed Rules]
[Pages 57436-57446]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: E9-26573]


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DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

50 CFR Parts 223 and 224

[Docket No. 0812291651-91321-02]
RIN 0648-XM05


Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Endangered Species 
Act Listing Determination for Atlantic Wolffish

AGENCY: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and 
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce.

ACTION: Notification of a listing determination and availability of a 
status review document.

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SUMMARY: After we, NMFS, received a petition to list Atlantic wolffish

[[Page 57437]]

(Anarhichas lupus) as threatened or endangered under the Endangered 
Species Act (ESA), we established a biological review team (BRT) to 
conduct a status review. We (NMFS) have reviewed the BRT's status 
review report and other available scientific and commercial information 
and have determined that listing Atlantic wolffish as threatened or 
endangered under the ESA is not warranted at this time. We also 
announce the availability of the status review document.

DATES: This finding is effective on November 6, 2009.

ADDRESSES: The Atlantic wolffish status review report and list of 
references are available by submitting a request to the Assistant 
Regional Administrator, Protected Resources Division, Northeast Region, 
NMFS, 55 Great Republic Way, Gloucester, MA 01930. The status review 
report and other reference materials regarding this determination can 
also be obtained via the Internet at: http://www.nero.noaa.gov/prot_res/CandidateSpeciesProgram/eas.htm.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Kim Damon-Randall, NMFS Northeast 
Regional Office, (978) 282-8485; or Marta Nammack, NMFS, Office of 
Protected Resources (301) 713-1401.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

    On October 1, 2008, we received a petition from the Conservation 
Law Foundation, Dr. Erica Fuller, and Dr. Les Watling (hereafter, the 
Petitioners), requesting that we list the U.S. distinct population 
segment (DPS) of Atlantic wolffish, consisting of one or more 
subpopulations in U.S. waters, or the entire species of Atlantic 
wolffish as endangered or threatened under the ESA and designate 
critical habitat for the species. The petition contains information 
about the species, including the taxonomy; historic and current 
distribution; physical and biological characteristics of its habitat 
and ecosystem relationships; population status and trends; and factors 
contributing to the species' decline. The Petitioners also included 
information regarding possible DPSs of Atlantic wolffish. The petition 
addresses the five factors identified in section 4(a)(1) of the ESA as 
they pertain to Atlantic wolffish: (A) current or threatened habitat 
destruction or modification or curtailment of habitat or range; (B) 
overutilization for commercial purposes; (C) disease or predation; (D) 
inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; and (E) other natural or 
man-made factors affecting the species' continued existence.
    On January 5, 2009, we determined that the petitioned action may be 
warranted and published a positive 90-day finding in the Federal 
Register (74 FR 249). Following our positive 90-day finding, we 
convened an Atlantic wolffish BRT to review the status of the species.
     The BRT completed the status review in July 2009. As part of the 
full evaluation of the status of Atlantic wolffish under the ESA, we 
requested that four individuals review the status review report and 
provide written summaries of their comments to ensure that the content 
of the document is factually supported and based on the best available 
data and the methodology and conclusions are scientifically valid. 
Prior to finalizing the status review report, the BRT considered and 
incorporated, as appropriate, the peer reviewers' comments. The final 
status review report was submitted to NMFS on September 30, 2009.
    The Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) has also submitted 
to NMFS a quantitative analysis using the Statistical Catch At Length 
(SCALE) model, which is a modeling program presently implemented by 
NMFS. In this model, projections of stock status are generally used to 
determine acceptable biological catch limits that would either maintain 
status quo conditions for stocks or increase the probability of 
rebuilding depleted stocks. This model can also be used to address the 
concern of a stock falling below some threshold that might threaten 
persistence. In particular, the stochastic projection model can be used 
to evaluate changes in population trajectories based on alterations in 
rates of future fishing mortality and life-history parameters.
    In collaboration with the Northeast Regional Office of NMFS, the 
NEFSC convened a meeting in Woods Hole to address the merits of 
applying such fisheries assessment models to address extinction risk in 
Atlantic wolffish. Two outside experts, Drs. Jean-Jacques Maguire and 
Grant Thompson, were invited to participate in the review and provide 
independent comments. The Workshop participants at this meeting met to 
provide additional information for our listing determination.

Range

    Atlantic wolffish can be found in northern latitudes of the eastern 
and western North Atlantic Ocean. In the Eastern North Atlantic, they 
range from eastern Greenland to Iceland, along northern Europe and the 
Scandinavian coast extending north and west to the Barents and White 
Seas and to the south in northern France and Ireland. In the Western 
North Atlantic, they are found from Davis Straits off western 
Greenland, along Newfoundland and Labrador coasts to Grand Bank and 
southward through the Canadian Maritime Provinces to Cape Cod, United 
States. Atlantic wolffish are found infrequently from southern New 
England to New Jersey (Collete and Klein-MacPhee, 2002). NEFSC's Bottom 
Trawl surveys have only encountered one fish southwest of Martha's 
Vineyard, Massachusetts, since 1963.

Habitat

    Temperature ranges where Atlantic wolffish occur deviate slightly 
with geographic region. Historically, in the Gulf of Maine (GOM), 
wolffish have been associated with temperatures ranging from 0[deg] - 
11.1[deg] C (Collete and Klein-MacPhee, 2002). Bottom temperatures 
collected from NEFSC bottom trawl surveys where wolffish were 
encountered ranged from 0.0 to 10.0[deg] C in spring and from 0 to 
14.3[deg] C in fall. In Newfoundland, water temperatures where wolffish 
were found ranged from -1.9 to 11.0[deg] C, in Norway from -1.3 to 
11.0[deg] C, and in Iceland and Northern Europe from -1.3 to 10.2[deg] 
C (Collete and Klein-MacPhee, 2002; Falk-Petersen and Hansen, 1991; 
Jonsson, 1982). Laboratory studies indicate wolffish can survive a wide 
span of temperatures ranging from -1.7 to 17.0[deg] C and that feeding 
is negatively correlated with the higher temperature extremes (Hagen 
and Mann, 1992; King et al., 1989).
    In the spring, adult wolffish in U.S. waters are primarily 
associated with depths between 27 and 173 m, while juveniles prefer a 
more narrow range of depths (70-184 m) in the spring (Nelson and Ross, 
1992). Depth preferences are similar for juveniles and adults in the 
fall. According to summer trawl survey data, Atlantic wolffish 
(juveniles and adults) on the Scotian Shelf prefer a depth range of 73-
126 m (Scott, 1982a). No data were available from the Gulf of St. 
Lawrence.
    In the spring, wolffish in U.S. waters are primarily associated 
with bottom temperatures below 5.3[deg] C (adults) and 6[deg] C 
(juveniles) (Keith and Nitschke, 2008). Temperature preferences are 
similar for adult (<9.7[deg] C) and juveniles (<9.6[deg] C) in the fall 
(Keith and Nitschke, 2008). Summer trawl survey data from the Scotian 
Shelf indicate that Atlantic wolffish prefer a bottom temperature range 
of 3 - 6[deg] C (Scott, 1982a). No data were available from the Gulf of 
St. Lawrence.
    There is very little information available on salinity as it 
relates to

[[Page 57438]]

wolffish presence. Kulka et al. (2004) summarized observations made by 
divers at various shallow-water locations on the east and west coasts 
of Newfoundland and reported that wolffish were not observed in major 
estuarine haloclines, but in deeper environments, indicating that the 
species may not be tolerant of low salinity.
    Substrate associations for adult Atlantic wolffish are well 
documented during the time of year that they use nearshore rocky 
habitats for reproduction. Based on the depth distribution information 
from the NEFSC trawl surveys in the GOM region, the adults move into 
slightly shallower water in the spring (mean depth 82.5 m versus 105 m 
in the fall) where they have been observed with and without egg masses 
inhabiting shelters in deep boulder reefs in depths between 50 and 100 
meters. Similar observations of adults inhabiting shelters in shallow 
(<30 m), rocky habitats prior to and after spawning have been made in 
the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Newfoundland. Few, if any, adult wolffish 
have been observed in other habitats in any of these surveys. There is 
clearly a strong preference for nearshore, rocky spawning habitat and 
for bottom temperatures <10[deg] C. Rocky, nearshore habitats are 
plentiful in the GOM and appear to provide critical spawning habitat 
for Atlantic wolffish.
    However, juvenile wolffish are found in a much wider variety of 
bottom habitats than adults. Also, once the adults have finished 
guarding the eggs and resume feeding, they move into deeper water where 
researchers have collected them over a variety of bottom types 
(including sand and gravel, but not mud). In fact, the collection of 
``aggregations'' of Atlantic wolffish eggs in bottom trawls fishing in 
130 meters of water on LeHave Bank (Scotian Shelf) in March 1966 
(Powles, 1967; Templeman, 1986) indicates that spawning is not 
restricted to nearshore habitats, and may not be restricted to rocky 
habitats. Attempts to relate catches of Atlantic wolffish in bottom 
trawl surveys to substrate types are of limited value and somewhat 
contradictory (bottom substrates are characterized using a variety of 
sampling techniques, ranging from acoustic surveys of large areas of 
the seafloor to point samples of finer sediments for grain size 
analysis. They are also classified using different categorization 
schemes and descriptive terminology. To add to the problem, there are a 
number of ways to spatially interpolate discrete sampling data to 
create substrate ``polygons'' in a GIS format, all of which are subject 
to problems that complicate the interpretation of the resulting 
``maps.''), but they do indicate that the juveniles do not have strong 
habitat preferences, and that adults are more widely distributed over a 
variety of bottom types once they leave their nearshore, rocky spawning 
habitats.

Consideration as a Species Under the ESA

    According to Section 3 of the ESA, the term ``species'' includes 
``any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct 
population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife that 
interbreeds when mature.'' Congress included the term ``distinct 
population segment'' in the 1978 amendments to the ESA. On February 7, 
1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NMFS adopted a policy to 
clarify their interpretation of the phrase ``distinct population 
segment'' for the purpose of listing, delisting, and reclassifying 
species (61 FR 4721). The policy described two criteria a population 
segment must meet in order to be considered a DPS (61 FR 4721):
    1. It must be discrete in relation to the remainder of the species 
to which it belongs; and
    2. It must be significant to the species to which it belongs.
    Determining if a population is discrete requires either one of the 
following conditions:
    1. It is markedly separated from other populations of the same 
taxon as a consequence of physical, physiological, ecological, or 
behavioral factors. Quantitative measures of genetic or morphological 
discontinuity may provide evidence of this separation; or
    2. It is delimited by international governmental boundaries within 
which differences in control of exploitation, management of habitat, 
conservation status, or regulatory mechanisms exist that are 
significant in light of section 4(a)(1)(D) of the ESA.
    If a population is deemed discrete, then the population segment is 
evaluated in terms of significance, which may include, but is not 
limited to, the following:
    1. Persistence of the discrete population segment in an ecological 
setting unusual or unique for the taxon.
    2. Evidence that loss of the discrete population segment would 
result in a significant gap in the range of the taxon.
    3. Evidence that the DPS represents the only surviving natural 
occurrence of a taxon that may be more abundant elsewhere as an 
introduced population outside its historic range; or
    4. Evidence that the discrete population segment differs markedly 
from other populations of the species in its genetic characteristics.
    If a population segment is deemed discrete and significant, then it 
qualifies as a DPS.

Discreteness

    As described earlier in this document, Atlantic wolffish occur over 
a large range in the North Atlantic Ocean. With such a large range, 
Atlantic wolffish have been reported to spawn at different times of the 
year in different geographical regions. This may have contributed to 
the segmentation of Atlantic wolffish by contributing to regional 
reproductive isolation. Researchers have also speculated that 
reproductive isolation has played a role in the genetic structuring of 
other species such as capelin (Dodson et al., 2007) and bluemouth 
(Aboim et al., 2005), another demersal fish. Investigators have 
suggested that varying ocean depths and the large geographic distances 
spanned by ocean basins may represent hydrographic barriers to 
effective migrations of demersal species (McCusker et al., unpublished; 
Knutsen et al., unpublished; Shaw et al., 1999). Physical and 
behavioral barriers to dispersal, along with the heterogeneity of 
spawning habitats and/or gyral retention of larvae, may inhibit gene 
flow and drive population differentiation at both large and local 
geographical scales (Imsland et al., 2008; O'Leary et al., 2007).
    In the GOM, there is an indication of a seasonal migration. Adult 
wolffish travel from shallow to deep waters in autumn and then from 
deep to shallow waters in spring (Nelson and Ross, 1992). These 
migrations have been related to reproduction and are size dependent 
(Nelson and Ross, 1992). Tagging data have shown that wolffish 
migrations are usually short with occasionally longer ones (Jonsson, 
1982; Templeman, 1984; Riget and Messtorff, 1988). Researchers reported 
the majority of recaptured wolffish migrated only 15 nautical miles 
(nm)(28 km); however, a small percentage of tagged fish migrated 
distances in excess of 100 nm (185 km).
    It has been suggested that currents in the Atlantic Ocean form 
retention zones for different life stages of many fish species that may 
lead to population discontinuity (Rosques et al., 2002; Sinclair and 
Ilse, 1985). Researchers suggest that the northwest and northeast-
central Atlantic groups of capelin have been isolated by the Labrador 
Current, which has influenced the phylogeographic pattern of the

[[Page 57439]]

species (Dodson et al., 2007). The North Atlantic current and the 
European continental shelf could also function as barriers for eastern 
populations in several marine species (Roques et al., 2002). Modeling 
of blue whiting larvae revealed that the retention of tracers was 
influenced by currents along the shelf edge in Europe and in the 
Rockall Trough (Bartsch and Coombs, 1997).
    Isolation and recolonization driven by glacial events have also 
been suggested to influence genetic population differentiation (Nesbo 
et al., 2000; O'Leary et al., 2007). Dodson et al. (2007) reported that 
the four genetic groups observed within capelin populations evolved 
through several glacial and climatic oscillations. Glaciation may also 
have strongly influenced other marine species in the North Atlantic/
Mediterranean (Abiom et al., 2005). These events may have affected food 
chains in deep sea environments, preventing pelagic larval dispersal 
(Aboim et al., 2005) and, hence, inhibiting gene flow.
    Molecular tools have been used to differentiate species of wolffish 
(Johnstone et al. 2007; McCusker et al., 2008) and assess the 
population genetic structure of specific species of wolffish throughout 
their range (Imsland et al., 2008). McCusker and colleagues 
(unpublished) have recently researched genetic variation in Atlantic 
wolffish, Anarhichas lupus, across the North Atlantic using 14 
microsatellite loci. Their results indicate that there are four 
genetically distinct populations of Atlantic wolffish. These four 
populations are referred to as: (1) North Atlantic, (2) Eastern Grand 
Banks, (3) Rockall Bank, and (4) Western Atlantic Canada. Comparable 
phylogeographical regions have been observed for a related species, 
Anarhicas minor, the spotted wolffish. Population genetic structure of 
this species revealed similar patterns between the western Atlantic, 
middle and eastern Atlantic, and Barents Sea populations (Imsland et 
al., 2008). Phylogeographical partitioning in these regions was also 
observed for Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus) (Nesbo et al., 2000), 
deepwater red fish (Sebastes mentella), and the blackbelly rosefish 
(Helicolenus dactylopterus) (Aboim, 2005).
    As noted, the genetic information that is available for wolffish 
from Canada and Europe indicates that there are four Atlantic wolffish 
populations which are significantly different from one another. Fish 
from Western Atlantic Canada are genetically distinct from all other 
areas within Canada and in Europe (McCusker, unpublished data). 
Atlantic wolffish from Western Atlantic Canada are geographically the 
closest population to Atlantic wolffish residing in the United States. 
While genetic information is not available for U.S. fish, because of 
the geographic proximity, lack of barriers, the ability to migrate 
hundreds of kilometers, and spatial overlap of U.S. fish with the 
Western Atlantic Canada population, we conclude it is probable that 
they are closely related. Although it is possible that U.S. samples are 
genetically distinct from western Atlantic Canadian samples, we have no 
reason to believe they are. If the two populations are different, it 
would likely be due to genetic drift related to small population size, 
rather than to historically significant isolation of this region from 
the rest of the range. Thus, based on the available genetic data and 
the other information presented above, the BRT concluded that the 
Atlantic wolffish from Western Atlantic Canada/United States are 
discrete from other Atlantic wolffish populations. We concur with the 
BRT's conclusion.

Significance

     If a population is deemed discrete, then the population segment is 
evaluated in terms of significance. As noted earlier, McCusker and 
colleagues have assessed the genetic composition of Atlantic wolffish 
samples from Canada using 14 microsatellite loci and documented that 
there are four genetically distinct populations. Although some 
significant differences occurred within groups, the four main groups 
they identified were characterized by consistent significant 
differences from each of the other main groups (p<0.003). An analysis 
of molecular variance (AMOVA) supported the four main group 
configuration (compared to two or three main groups), indicating that 
this configuration had the highest among-group variation and lowest 
within-group variation (McCusker et al., unpublished data).
    The mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) was also assessed to detect any 
genetic variation across the range of Atlantic wolffish in order to 
determine phylogeographic structure. Phylogeographic analyses supported 
the single refuge hypothesis during the last glaciation, with the most 
likely location of the refuge being in the eastern Atlantic. Therefore, 
post-glacial colonization of the range of wolffish most likely occurred 
from the eastern Atlantic to the western Atlantic. This resulted in the 
significant genetic differences observed between Atlantic wolffish 
populations.
    Western Atlantic Canadian samples, in particular, were 
characterized by low diversity, possibly suggesting relatively recent 
(<20,000 years ago) colonization of this part of the range (McCusker et 
al., unpublished data). Other studies performed on mtDNA have 
implicated Pleistocene glaciations as a major contributing factor to 
phylogeographic patterns within and among closely related species 
(Avise et al.,1998; Dodson et al., 2007).
    The North Atlantic, Eastern Grand Banks, and Rockall Bank (White 
Sea) populations constitute both the northernmost and easternmost 
reproducing populations of Atlantic wolffish, while fish from the 
Western Atlantic Canada/United States represent the southernmost 
reproducing population. Genetic research detected greater genetic 
diversity in the North Atlantic and Eastern Atlantic populations when 
heterozygosity and allelic richness were plotted and compared to 
Western Atlantic Canada samples. Loss of any one of these four 
populations would result in significant gaps in the range of this taxon 
and decreased genetic diversity; thus, all four genetically distinct 
populations are significant to the taxon as a whole.
    Based on the available information, the BRT concluded that Atlantic 
wolffish observed in Western Atlantic Canada and the United States form 
one DPS. The DPS consists of the following oceanic areas: (1) Canada's 
Scotian Shelf; (2) southern Gulf of St. Lawrence; (3) northern Gulf of 
St. Lawrence; (4) southern Newfoundland; and (5) United States. We 
agree with the BRT's DPS delineation and refer to this DPS as the 
Western Atlantic Canada/U.S. DPS of Atlantic wolffish. The available 
information also indicates that there are three additional DPSs 
spanning the remainder of the range of Atlantic wolffish outside of the 
United States and Western Atlantic Canada. Information on these 
remaining DPSs indicates that these populations are either stable or 
increasing. The information presented in the remainder of this finding, 
therefore, pertains to the status of the Western Atlantic Canada/U.S. 
DPS.

Abundance and Status of the Western Atlantic Canada/U.S. DPS

    The status of wolffish in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and Scotian 
Shelf was summarized in a Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans 
(DFO) science stock status report (DFO, 2000). According to the report, 
which summarizes data from summer (Northern Gulf of St. Lawrence, 1990-
2000, and Scotian Shelf, 1970-2000) and fall (Southern Gulf of St. 
Lawrence, 1970-2000) research surveys, wolffish

[[Page 57440]]

are distributed throughout the Scotian Shelf, with numbers decreasing 
in the late 1990s in the mid-shelf and increasing in the northern 
shelf. Mean number per tow was 0.5 in 1970, peaked in 1989 to 1.5, and 
remained above the 1970-2000 average throughout the Scotian Shelf since 
then; mean weight per tow, however, was near record lows from 1990 to 
2000 (ranging from 0.4 to 1.1 kg). Atlantic wolffish were distributed 
throughout the Northern Gulf of Saint Lawrence, with the primary 
concentration off the west coast of Newfoundland. Mean number per tow 
increased from 0.2 in 1990 to 0.6 in 2000 in this area, and weight per 
tow increased in this area from 0.10 kg in 1990 to 0.18 kg in 2000. In 
the Southern Gulf of Saint Lawrence, wolffish were distributed along 
the slope of the Laurentian Channel. Mean number and mean weight per 
tow in this area increased from 0.01 and 0.15 kg, respectively, to 
above average after 1987 (as high as 0.20 and 0.26 kg per tow, 
respectively), but declined to low levels in the 1990s (0.02 and 0.03 
kg, respectively, in 1999).
    Length frequency data (1970 2000) from the Scotian Shelf indicate 
that the increased abundance since 1986 was based on small fish, with 
the mature fish ([gteqt]55cm) survey abundance index near record lows. 
The number of immature fish in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence also 
increased, but mature fish were also more prevalent, contributing to 
the increased abundance after 1987; however, the number of mature fish 
declined to low levels in the late 1990s. Mature fish have seldom been 
caught in the Northern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Resource survey trends in 
parts of the Canadian portion of the DPS show improved recruitment at 
low biomass levels and stable or even increasing trends of abundance.
    The area occupied index (percent occurrence of wolffish in survey 
tows) on the Scotian Shelf declined during the 1980s and remained low 
during the 1990s. In the Southern Gulf of Saint Lawrence the index 
increased in the early 1980s and remained at slightly higher values 
since then. An area occupied index was not produced for the Northern 
Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
    In the United States, Atlantic wolffish are at relatively low 
biomass, with various model estimates ranging between 475 and 998 mt of 
spawning stock biomass in 2007, according to findings presented at the 
NEFSC Data Poor Assessment Working Group meeting. Current abundance 
levels (estimated by SCALE model for 2007) are also low, ranging from 
89,000 384,000 adult fish for SCALE model runs 1 and 2. The SCALE model 
was applied to data from 1968-2007. The SCALE model estimates for 1970 
abundance using the same assumptions range from 557,000 to 1,222,000, 
with the estimate peaking in 1982 (379,152 to 1,909,600) before 
declining to 2007 levels. While estimated population numbers from U.S. 
waters are low, they are not believed to have reached levels where they 
are at risk of extinction now or in the foreseeable future.

 SCALE Model Projections

    Stock assessment models focus on estimation, and often use a wider 
range and longer time series of data than most standard models used in 
biological conservation. This distinction can be attributed to the 
underlying problem species under consideration for threatened or 
endangered status often have limited data. Therefore, we asked the 
NEFSC's Northeast Data Poor Stocks Working Group to assess the status 
of Atlantic wolffish, and the Working Group used the SCALE model 
mentioned above to do this. The SCALE model was used to assess only the 
U.S. portion of the Western Atlantic Canada/U.S. DPS because of: (1) 
inconsistencies between U.S. and Canadian fishery independent surveys; 
(2) differences in how commercial catch is reported in the two 
countries; and (3) the fact that, in Canada, Atlantic wolffish landings 
are grouped with other species of wolffishes, rather than separated by 
species. Despite the limited amount of data available, wolffish have 
been monitored by NEFSC bottom surveys for over 40 years, and a wide 
range of size frequency data is available from commercial landings and 
discard monitoring. While it is not possible to develop age-based 
measures of abundance, it is possible to use the existing length-based 
data in the SCALE model to develop projections of population trends in 
the future.
    Workshop participants agreed that quantitative stock projections 
were an appropriate basis for evaluating the risk of extinction. The 
Working Group could not agree on generating a unique measure of 
extinction risk for the U.S. portion of the Western Atlantic Canada/
U.S. DPS of Atlantic wolffish, but agreed to use previous values 
associated with relevant literature (e.g., Musick et al., 2000; the 
Atlantic White Marlin Status Review, 2007). The literature suggests a 
carrying capacity (K) threshold value of 0.05 be associated with a 
species considered vulnerable or at possible risk of becoming 
threatened or endangered (Musick et al., 2000). Workshop participants 
assumed that a population size below 0.05K, where K is 2 times biomass 
at maximum sustainable yield (BMSY), was a useful proxy for the 
extinction threshold for the U.S. portion of the Western Atlantic/
United States DPS of Atlantic wolffish. Different values of fishing 
mortality (F) were also examined: a status quo F of 0.158, a near 
three-fold increase in F to 0.5, and an order of magnitude increase in 
F to 1.16. Results suggest that a value of F of 1.16 would cause the 
population to fall below 0.05K. However, the near order of magnitude 
increase in F above the current best estimate seems highly unlikely. 
Maintaining F at its recent level and progressively reducing average 
recruitment revealed that recruitment would have to drop below 1/5 of 
its current level to induce the population to decline to the assumed 
extinction threshold value of 0.05K. Hence, Workshop participants 
concluded that the risk of the population falling below 0.05K was very 
low. They further commented that the range of projection scenarios 
evaluated was sufficient to bound the risk. Finally, they noted that 
none of the scenarios considered the effects of habitat loss or 
possible unforeseen catastrophic events, but acknowledged that there is 
no explicit way of assessing this other than through some hypothesis 
about changes in productivity. Sufficient data were not available to 
perform a productivity analysis.
Significant Portion of its Range and Foreseeable Future
    The ESA defines an ``endangered species'' as ``any species which is 
in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its 
range,'' while a ``threatened species'' is defined as ``any species 
which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable 
future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.'' The 
phrase ``throughout all or a significant portion of its range'' is 
neither defined nor explained in the ESA, and a final policy on how to 
interpret this language has not been developed by NMFS.
    According to the NEFSC, Massachusetts, Maine/New Hampshire, and 
Cooperative Industry Based surveys, the general distribution of 
Atlantic wolffish in the United States is limited to the GOM, Georges 
Bank (GB), and the Great South Channel (GSC). Wolffish are scattered 
throughout these regions, but within the range of the Western Atlantic 
Canada/U.S. DPS, major concentrations appear in Jeffreys Ledge, Cashes 
Ledge, Stellwagen Bank, and Platts Bank. In western Canadian waters 
associated with the DPS, Atlantic wolffish are distributed from 
southern Newfoundland to Nova Scotia. Major

[[Page 57441]]

concentrations of Atlantic wolffish have been observed in the Bay of 
Fundy through the Scotian Shelf; the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence; the 
Northern Gulf of St. Lawrence; and west and south coasts of 
Newfoundland.
    We concur with the BRT's assessment that major concentrations of 
wolffish reside within the U.S. portion of the GOM and the western 
Atlantic waters of Canada during certain times of the year, but these 
concentrations do not represent significant portions of the range of 
the Western Atlantic Canada/U.S. DPS of Atlantic wolffish. These 
aggregations are in response to the habitat specificity associated with 
the species' spawning behavior. After this brief reproductive 
assemblage, wolffish once again become habitat generalists in order to 
maintain their solitary lifestyle. With the drifting pelagic larval 
stage of wolffish and the ability of adults to migrate, Atlantic 
wolffish have been observed throughout the range of Western Atlantic 
Canada/U.S. DPS; thus, the entire geographic range of the DPS is 
important, and threats assessed in any one spawning area of the entire 
range do not reflect the threats that the DPS faces throughout its 
range.
    The BRT considered various methodologies for defining the 
foreseeable future for Atlantic wolffish. It is appropriate to 
interpret ``foreseeable future'' in the statutory context as the 
timeframe over which identified threats are likely to impact the 
biological status of the species. The appropriate period of time 
corresponding to the foreseeable future depends on the particular kinds 
of threats, the life history characteristics, and the specific habitat 
requirements for the species under consideration. The aspects of the 
Atlantic wolffish life history that make the species vulnerable are 
slow growth rate, relatively late age of maturity, low fecundity, and 
the fact that the species is relatively long lived (maximum age 22 
years). The BRT considered the fact that some threats are localized 
events and/or long term. This would include such threats as localized 
habitat degradation, incidental catch, overutilization, contamination, 
direct impacts on boulder reef habitats, and the possible rise in 
surface temperature and its potential effect on larval survival.
    The BRT also considered the information that is available regarding 
the causes of the significant decline of wolffish that occurred during 
an approximately 20-year time period. The best scientific and 
commercial data available indicate that Atlantic wolffish have a mean 
generation time of 5 to 6 years. As further support for the 20-year 
timeframe for the foreseeable future, the BRT also used the 3-
generation forecast period used by the Convention on International 
Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and 
International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). After 
considering all relevant threats, life history characteristics, and 
population declines, the BRT concluded that the foreseeable future for 
the species is 20 years. We concur with this time period for the 
foreseeable future.
Qualitative Threats Assessment
    As discussed in the section above, there are several threats to 
Atlantic wolffish that the BRT considered. Qualitative threats 
assessments are often performed to help evaluate the significance of 
the threats to the species and their impact on the persistence of the 
species. There are no standard methods or protocols employed to 
estimate the risk to the long-term persistence of species. 
Consequently, the BRT adopted a qualitative ranking system that is 
adapted from similar types of qualitative analyses for ESA listing used 
on the West Coast (e.g., Pacific salmon, Pacific herring, Pacific hake, 
rockfish) and for other species assessed on the East Coast (e.g., 
Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon).
    In the qualitative threats assessment, the BRT identified the 
following five demographic variables which individually and 
collectively are considered to be strong indicators of potential risk 
to the long-term persistence of the species: abundance, population age/
size structure, population growth rate/productivity, spatial structure/
connectivity, and genetic diversity. The BRT discussed what is known 
about each of these criteria and also any uncertainties associated with 
each criterion. Following this discussion, the BRT ranked each 
criterion for its effect on the long-term persistence of wolffish. The 
following rankings and the associated definitions were used: very low 
risk = highly unlikely that this criterion alone or in combination with 
other criteria contributes significantly to risk to the long-term 
persistence of the species; low risk = unlikely that this criterion 
contributes significantly to risk to the long-term persistence of the 
species by itself, but some concern that it may in combination with 
other factors; moderate risk = this criterion contributes significantly 
to risk to the long-term persistence of the species, but does not in 
itself constitute a risk to the persistence of the species in the near 
future; high risk = this criterion contributes significantly to risk to 
the long-term persistence of the species and is likely to contribute to 
the short-term risk to the persistence of the species in the 
foreseeable future; very high risk = this criterion by itself indicates 
a danger to the persistence of the species in the near future.
    The BRT ranked all of the criteria low, meaning that it is unlikely 
that the particular criterion contributes significantly to risk of the 
long-term persistence of the species by itself, but there is some 
concern that it may in combination with other factors. The following is 
a summary of the discussion regarding the available information for 
each criterion as well as any associated uncertainties and the final 
ranking.

Abundance

    For the abundance criterion, the BRT noted that commercial fishing 
effort is not likely to increase significantly in the foreseeable 
future and that, if Amendment 16 to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery 
Management Plan (FMP) is implemented as proposed (e.g., includes the 
ban on possession of wolffish), commercial fishing will have less of an 
effect on abundance in the near future. The NEFMC will determine in 
December 2009 if Amendment 16's ban on possession of wolffish will be 
implemented and become effective in May 2010.
    There are indications that wolffish may be increasing in some areas 
in Canada, which is a positive sign in relation to abundance of the 
DPS. Also, the data from Canada indicate an increase in the number of 
small wolffish, which suggests that the DPS is capable of producing 
recruits even at low biomass. Consequently, the BRT determined it is 
unlikely that the long-term persistence of the species is at risk due 
to abundance.

Population Size/Age Structure

    The BRT discussed population size/age structure for the DPS. They 
noted that there has been a period of low recruitment for the past 2 to 
3 years, and it is not known if this will persist, but the population 
has experienced similar trends in the past with both high and low adult 
biomass estimates. As stated above, the SCALE model scenarios indicate 
that recruitment would have to drop below 1/5 of its current level to 
induce the population to decline to the assumed extinction threshold. 
The NEFSC trawl survey data indicate that the size structure of the DPS 
has been consistent over time and that large fish are still being 
caught in the survey. The risk from changes to this size structure was 
determined by the BRT to be low.

[[Page 57442]]

The BRT concluded that it is unlikely that the long-term persistence of 
the wolffish is at risk due to changes in population size/age 
structure.

Growth Rate/Productivity

    During the discussion regarding the population growth rate/
productivity criterion, the BRT noted that a large decline in Atlantic 
wolffish occurred from the mid 1980s through mid 1990s (see Abundance 
and Status, above). However, since then, the population biomass appears 
to have stabilized at the lowest levels of the time series. Atlantic 
wolffish are a K selected species (e.g., a species which invests more 
in producing fewer offspring which have a relatively high probability 
of surviving to adulthood). Consequently, while they do not produce a 
large number of offspring, the survival of the early life stages may be 
higher than other species. Additionally, there is evidence from Canada 
that good year class production can be achieved even at low biomass, as 
mentioned above. The BRT concluded that it is unlikely that the long-
term persistence of the wolffish is at risk due to changes in 
population growth rate/productivity within the DPS.

Spatial Structure/Connectivity

    The BRT determined that populations do not appear to be spatially 
segregated, and there are no apparent barriers between wolffish within 
the DPS to prevent mixing. The larval pelagic stage most likely 
increases potential for connectivity within the DPS. Also, while it 
appears that most wolffish do not migrate long distances, limited 
tagging data are available, indicating that they are capable of long 
distance migrations. Thus, the risk from impacts to spatial structure/
connectivity to the DPS is low. The BRT concluded that it is unlikely 
that the long-term persistence of the wolffish is at risk due to 
changes to spatial structure/connectivity.

Genetic Diversity

    Atlantic wolffish is a widely dispersed species. In the areas 
throughout the range of the taxon from which genetic samples have been 
taken and analyzed, there are four genetically discrete populations. 
There were no significant genetic differences observed between areas 
within Western Atlantic Canada, leading to the conclusion that they are 
capable of mixing and that there are no barriers within this range 
which may lead to significant genetic differentiation. Genetic 
information is lacking for fish from the United States; however, given 
there are no significant barriers to mixing between the U.S. and the 
Western Atlantic Canada populations and that fish have been observed 
along the border between Canada and the United States, it is probable 
they are genetically similar. Given the broad range of the DPS and the 
lack of barriers to mixing within it, the risk from decreased genetic 
diversity is low.
    The BRT has considered abundance, population age/size structure, 
population growth rate/productivity, spatial structure/connectivity, 
and genetic diversity and has concluded that potential changes in the 
five demographic variables are unlikely to pose a risk to the long-term 
persistence of the Western Atlantic Canada/U.S. DPS of wolffish. We 
concur with the BRT that each of the demographic criteria described 
above represent low risk to the DPS now and in the foreseeable future.

Summary of the Factors Affecting the Western Atlantic Canada/U.S. DPS

    As described above, section 4(a)(1) of the ESA and NMFS 
implementing regulations (50 CFR 424) state that we must determine 
whether a species is endangered or threatened because of any one or a 
combination of the following factors: (A) current or threatened habitat 
destruction or modification or curtailment of habitat or range; (B) 
overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or 
educational purposes; (C) disease or predation; (D) inadequacy of 
existing regulatory mechanisms; and (E) other natural or man-made 
factors affecting the species' continued existence. This section 
briefly summarizes the findings regarding these factors. More details 
can be found in the status review report.

A. The Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment 
of its Habitat or Range

    Coastal boulder reef spawning habitats used by Atlantic wolffish in 
western Canada and the GOM are highly vulnerable to physical damage 
that would result from the use of mobile, bottom-tending fishing gear 
(bottom trawls and scallop dredges). However, these gears are not 
normally used in such environments because they are severely damaged or 
lost if they come in contact with piled boulders. Other sandy and hard 
bottom pebble-cobble habitats used by juvenile and adult wolffish are 
less vulnerable to modification from fishing, but are exposed to 
fishing gear effects over a wide expanse of the continental shelf. The 
general effects of bottom trawls and dredges include reduction in 
habitat complexity, changes in benthic community composition, and 
reduced benthic productivity, especially in deeper-water environments 
that are not disturbed by bottom currents and wave action.
    Fishing could reduce the survival of juvenile Atlantic wolffish by 
reducing the amount of shelter available (to hide from predators), but 
if this is the case, the effect is most likely localized and is not 
expected to be a significant risk to the entire DPS. In all cases, the 
potential adverse impacts of non-fishing human activities on boulder 
reef spawning habitat in coastal waters would be restricted to 
localized environments and are not expected to pose a significant risk 
to the entire DPS. Many of them could be avoided by siting project 
activities so that they avoid sensitive wolffish spawning habitats. 
Potential adverse impacts to offshore (depths >100 meters) benthic 
wolffish habitats from activities such as oil and gas exploration and 
production, mineral mining, alternative energy development, dredge 
spoil disposal, and pipeline and cable installation would be localized 
and therefore, do not pose a significant risk to the entire DPS. The 
previously mentioned impacts are considered local events because of the 
broad range of the DPS, the habitat generalist nature of the species, 
and the ability of all life stages to migrate within the entire range 
of the DPS. These characteristics would allow for the continued 
persistence of the species within the range of the DPS in the event of 
localized impacts.

B. Overutilization for Commercial, Recreational, Scientific, or 
Educational Purposes

    Because wolffish are widely dispersed across the DPS, they are 
inevitably captured during recreational and commercial fishing 
activities. Slow growing species with low fecundity are considered more 
vulnerable, but Atlantic wolffish also employ valuable life history 
strategies, such as internal fertilization, large eggs, and nest 
guarding (Musick, 1999; Keats et al., 1985; Pavlov and Novikov, 1993) 
to improve productivity and survivability.
    Commercial landings from the region south of the Grand Banks are 
composed primarily of Atlantic wolffish. This region encompasses a 
large part of the western Atlantic Canada/U.S. DPS, including the Gulf 
of St. Lawrence, Scotian Shelf, Bay of Fundy, and the Gulf of Maine. 
The combined landings from these regions were approximately 1,000-1,500 
mt in the 1960s, 2,000 mt from 1968-1979, peaking in 1983 at 
approximately 4,000 mt, dropping steadily in the 1990s to approximately

[[Page 57443]]

1,000 mt, and then averaging 625 mt in the early 2000s (Kulka et al., 
2007). The incidental catches of wolffish in southern Newfoundland 
during the 1995-2002 period were approximately 114 mt (Kulka et al., 
2007). In the United States, Atlantic wolffish have been taken 
primarily as incidental catch in the otter trawl fishery. Landings from 
this fishery increased until peaking in 1983 at 1,100 mt and then 
declined steadily until 2007, the latest complete year for which data 
are available, when landings were 63 mt.
    Management action in Canada has likely benefited Atlantic wolffish, 
including effort controls in groundfish fisheries, which have reduced 
the amount of wolffish landed, and listing under Canada's Species at 
Risk Act (SARA) as a Species of Special Concern (Kulka et al., 2007). 
Similarly, U.S. fishery management effort controls and permanent and 
seasonal area closures within the GOM for other groundfish species have 
reduced both fishing mortality over time and habitat disturbance in 
these areas, thereby, providing an indirect benefit to wolffish. 
Proposed action by the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) 
under Amendment 16 to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management 
Plan (FMP), if implemented, will prohibit possession of Atlantic 
wolffish by May 2010 and will likely succeed in further reducing 
fishing mortality and improving resource health. Although Atlantic 
wolffish discard mortality rates are not specifically known in the GOM, 
a study from the yellowtail fishery in Canadian waters indicates that 
discard survival rates may be as high as 100 percent (Grant et al., 
2005).
    The threats to Atlantic wolffish from recreational fishing impose a 
low risk to the wolffish DPS. While recreational landings of Atlantic 
wolffish have occurred and have become more significant in terms of 
overall catch in the United States, due to reduced commercial landings, 
they are still relatively low over the range of the entire DPS. 
Stewardship programs for all three wolffish species in eastern Canada 
have likely reduced incidental catch mortality and are building support 
for conservation and recovery of the resource (Pers Comm K. Blanchard, 
2009). As discussed above, proposed action by the NEFMC, if 
implemented, will prohibit possession of Atlantic wolffish by 
recreational fishers in the United States as well.
    Atlantic wolffish are used in various scientific research projects 
and for educational purposes, but neither of these poses a significant 
risk to the long-term persistence of this species as the numbers taken 
for these purposes are low.

C. Predation and Disease

    Rountree (2002, in Collette and Klein-MacPhee, 2002) indicated that 
Atlantic wolffish have been reported in the stomachs of Greenland 
sharks (Barsuov, 1959), Atlantic cod (Saemundsson, 1949; Basukov, 
1959), haddock (Orlova et al., 1989) and gray seals (Pierce et al., 
1990). Spotted wolffish are believed to prey upon Atlantic wolffish 
eggs (Jonsson, 1982, in Collette and Klein-MacPhee, 2002). The NEFSC 
reports that Atlantic wolffish have been documented in the stomachs of 
the following species: goosefish, sea raven, longhorn sculpin, winter 
skate, thorny skate, cod, spiny dogfish, pollock, haddock, and red hake 
(pers. comm. Jason Link, NEFSC, 2009; Link and Almeida, 2000). 
Information on predation of Atlantic wolffish from the NEFSC's Fish 
Habitat Database (FHDBS), an ongoing study that began in 1973, 
indicates that occurrences of wolffish are limited and the quantity of 
wolffish in stomach contents is low; thus, predation is not likely to 
be having a significant effect at the population level (pers. comm. 
Jason Link, NEFSC, 2009). The BRT was not able to find information that 
demonstrates a link between gray seal population increases and Atlantic 
wolffish declines.
    Rountree (2002, in Collette and Klein-MacPhee, 2002) reports that a 
sporozoan parasite has been documented to infect Atlantic wolffish 
muscle tissue resulting in a condition known as ``hairy catfish.'' This 
condition may affect the marketability of the fish (Jonsson, 1982, in 
Collette and Klein-MacPhee, 2002). Rountree (2002, in Collette and 
Klein-MacPhee, 2002) also reports that other studies have indicated 
that parasites have been found in Atlantic wolffish, and, most often, 
these parasites are associated with benthic organisms (Zubchenko, 1980, 
in Collette and Klein-MacPhee, 2002). One parasitic fungoid 
microorganism (Mycelites ossifragus) has been found to burrow into 
wolffish teeth, and this may play a role in the destruction of their 
teeth (Barsukov, 1959, in Collette and Klein-MacPhee, 2002). The BRT 
concludes that neither disease nor predation is significantly affecting 
the long-term persistence of Atlantic wolffish, and we concur with this 
determination.

D. Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms

    Current regulatory mechanisms in some fisheries provide both direct 
and indirect protections to Atlantic wolffish within the Western 
Atlantic Canada/U.S. DPS. Other regulatory mechanisms such as the 
Coastal Zone Management Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Lacey 
Act, Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, and 
various state laws and regulations (discussed in more detail in the 
status review report) provide some indirect benefits to wolffish; 
however, those related to the conservation and management of fisheries 
most likely provide the greatest benefit.
    Within Canadian waters, landings are controlled under an annual 
quota, and fishermen are encouraged to release Atlantic wolffish as 
part of the live-release program, in place since 2004, for spotted and 
Northern wolffish.
    In the United States, Atlantic wolffish are not currently managed 
under a FMP. However, several management measures approved by the NEFMC 
under the NE Multispecies FMP with the intention of protecting habitat 
or controlling effort in the groundfish fishery have provided some 
protection to wolffish populations throughout the GOM and GB. Several 
year-round closure areas have been implemented that prohibit commercial 
fishing with gear capable of catching groundfish, though recreational 
fishing is still permitted in these areas. The Western GOM Closed Area, 
in particular, covers an area of historically high wolffish abundance. 
Amendment 13 to the NE Multispecies FMP established seven year-round 
habitat closures in the GOM/GB region that prohibit the use of mobile, 
bottom-tending fishing gear (NEFMC, 2003). Most of the areas overlapped 
the existing groundfish closed areas, but some were in new areas. A 
series of rolling closures were created in the GOM in part to protect 
spawning groundfish aggregations, but which also provide protection to 
wolffish during limited times of the year. Within the GOM/GB Inshore 
Restricted Roller Gear Area, an inshore area of the western GOM that 
includes areas of historically higher wolffish abundance, no part of a 
trawl footrope, including discs, rollers, or rockhoppers may exceed 12 
inches (0.30 m) in diameter. A separate action has prohibited the 
harvest of groundfish using brush-sweep, also known as ``street 
sweeper,'' trawl gear. These two provisions limit the ability of trawl 
gear to be used in rocky habitat areas considered preferred habitat for 
wolffish. The minimum mesh size of trawl and gillnet gear used in the 
GOM and GB has increased a number of times over the years, improving 
the probable escapement of wolffish. In addition, several rounds of 
reductions in days at sea have been implemented since 1994

[[Page 57444]]

with the intention of reducing effort in the groundfish fishery. A more 
detailed chronology of effort controls in the NE multispecies fishery 
is provided in the status review report. All of these measures have 
provided indirect protection to wolffish populations.
    Amendment 16 to the NE Multispecies FMP, as adopted by the NEFMC in 
June 2009, adds the Atlantic wolffish to the list of species managed 
under the FMP (NEFMC, 2009). As part of this inclusion, Amendment 16 
identifies Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) for the species. The amendment 
requires establishment of management measures to address the 
determination that the Atlantic wolffish stock is ``overfished.'' 
Amendment 16 prohibits the retention of wolffish in both the commercial 
and recreational fisheries, and requires that any wolffish caught be 
released alive. If approved by the NMFS, regulations implementing this 
prohibition would become effective in May 2010.
    The lack of regulatory mechanisms in place that directly protect 
Atlantic wolffish has been and is continuing to have some effect on the 
species, as evidenced by the decreases in abundance. The BRT concluded 
that the lack of direct regulatory mechanisms in the United States 
poses a moderate risk the species. However, if Amendment 16 is 
implemented successfully, this will be reduced to a low risk. We concur 
with the BRT's evaluation of existing regulatory mechanisms in the 
United States. The BRT also evaluated the regulatory mechanisms for 
Atlantic wolffish in Canada. Because there is a live release program 
for the two other species of wolffish in Canada, many Atlantic wolffish 
from the DPS are released alive. Thus, the BRT concluded that the risk 
from the inadequacy of existing international regulatory mechanisms in 
Canada is low. While the risk to the DPS from the inadequacy of 
existing regulatory mechanisms in the United States is currently 
moderate, this is not driving the DPS toward imminent risk of 
extinction or endangerment in the foreseeable future because of the 
wide range occupied by this species and the protections afforded 
indirectly in both the United States and Canada.

E. Other Natural or Manmade Factors Affecting the Continued Existence 
of the Species

    The BRT examined other natural or manmade factors affecting the 
continued existence of Atlantic wolffish. Climate change models predict 
that bottom water temperatures could increase enough during the next 
100 years to cause the loss of spawning habitat south of Cape Cod, but 
not in the GOM where the species is more common. Sea surface waters 
could warm to the point that the survival of pelagic larvae in November 
and December is compromised. Atlantic wolffish eggs incubate for 3 to 9 
months, allowing them to hatch over several months. This incubation/
hatching period can last as late as May or June. Consequently, given 
that incubation and hatching are spread over a relatively large time 
period, impacts to sea surface water temperatures during only a portion 
of the incubation/hatching period are not expected to pose a 
significant threat to the DPS.
    The BRT considered the impacts to Atlantic wolffish from increased 
competition and/or decreased availability of prey. Evidence supports 
the existence of a classic predator/prey response between wolffish and 
green sea urchins within certain portions of its range (Keats et al., 
1886; Bernstein et al., 1981; Hagen and Mann, 1992). The sea urchin 
population declined in the late 1980s because of an intense fishery and 
a disease outbreak in Nova Scotia. The decline in wolffish abundance in 
recent years can not be attributed to a reduction in the numbers of sea 
urchins in the GOM since other prey species are readily available, or 
to competition from other species of fish. The BRT also considered the 
impacts to Atlantic wolffish from aquaculture operations. Currently, 
there is an aquaculture research program in Canada. However, this 
program does not pose a threat to the DPS since there are no immediate 
plans to harvest wild brood stock.

Ranking of Stressors/Factors

    The BRT identified the anthropogenic stressors and natural limiting 
factors that are associated with the five ESA factors (discussed in 
more detail in section 7 of the status review report and in the section 
above) and evaluated each stressor/factor in terms of its effect to the 
long-term persistence of the species. The same ranking system and 
associated definitions discussed above in the demographic risk analysis 
were used to rank each stressor/factor (e.g., from very low to very 
high).

Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment of its 
Habitat or Range

    Two anthropogenic stressors were associated with this factor (i.e., 
present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its 
habitat or range) loss or degradation of habitat from fishing related 
activities and from other anthropogenic activities (e.g., dredging, 
aggregate extraction, offshore energy development). The available 
information indicates that for most of the year, wolffish are habitat 
generalists occurring over many different bottom types; however, for 
part of the year, they have an affinity for boulder reefs which provide 
shelter for them and their young. Consequently, impacts to this habitat 
could be significant. Most of the commercial fishermen with bottom 
tending gear avoid boulder reef habitats in order to prevent damage to 
their gear. It is possible that fishing gear could be developed that is 
capable of fishing in boulder reef areas, which could lead to impacts 
to this habitat. However, the likelihood of this is uncertain. Because 
fishing effort is currently low in the boulder reef areas, it is 
unlikely that significant destruction to these habitats from fishing 
gear is occurring. Currently, there are several areas that are closed 
to bottom tending gear, and these closures may result in some habitat 
protection for the DPS. It is not known if these areas will continue to 
be closed in the future. If Amendment 16 to the Multi-species FMP is 
implemented as proposed, it will include EFH designations that will 
also provide protection to important habitats for the DPS. It is also 
possible that other anthropogenic activities such as dredging, 
aggregate extraction, and offshore energy development could have 
localized impacts to these boulder reef habitats. Given the wide range 
of the DPS, if there are impacts to habitat from fishing gear or other 
anthropogenic activities, they are likely to be localized and not 
affect a significant portion of the DPS. Thus, the BRT considered the 
risk to the DPS associated with these two anthropogenic factors to be 
low.

Overutilization for Commercial and Recreational Purposes

    The BRT evaluated the risk to the DPS from overutilization for 
commercial and recreational purposes (Factor B). The BRT agreed that 
the available information for recreational harvest may not be an 
accurate reflection of the catch; however, the reported recreational 
catch does represent 20 percent of the reported commercial catch. 
Recreational fishermen also have the ability to fish in the boulder 
reef areas that commercial fishermen do not typically fish in and may 
encounter wolffish more frequently in these areas.
    After a period of high fishing mortality rates, reported commercial 
utilization rates for wolffish have declined in response to regulatory 
measures implemented for other groundfish stocks. The BRT expects that 
the commercial fishing rate associated with groundfish fisheries will 
continue to decline, but given the potential for

[[Page 57445]]

changes in management measures in the future, this is uncertain. As 
stated previously, if Amendment 16 is approved as proposed (e.g., 
includes a ban on possession for commercial and recreational catch), 
then this would most likely reduce wolffish mortality from both 
commercial and recreational fishing. This ban on possession would lead 
to a live release program for both commercial fishers participating in 
the multi-species groundfish fishery and recreational fishers. The 
success of a live release program is unknown, but given expected high 
post-release survival rates for wolffish, it is expected to be good. 
There has been a mandatory live release program for northern and 
spotted wolffish in Canada since 2004, and many fishers are applying 
this practice to Atlantic wolffish. However, since Atlantic wolffish 
are a species of special concern, it is not known whether this program 
will continue to result in indirect benefits to the species into the 
future. Limited data are available regarding the amount of wolffish 
taken in lobster gear, but incidental catch has been reported and thus, 
this could represent a source of incidental catch that has not been 
addressed.
    The BRT evaluated the risk to the DPS from both commercial and 
recreational overutilization (Factor B). The BRT determined that the 
risk from recreational fisheries is low. The BRT also determined that 
currently, there is a moderate risk to the DPS from commercial 
fisheries. However, if the ban on possession in Amendment 16 is 
implemented and effective, then overutilization from commercial 
fisheries would represent a low risk to the DPS.

Disease and Predation

    The BRT evaluated the risk to the DPS from disease and predation 
(Factor C). According to the NEFSC, there are some predators of 
Atlantic wolffish, but they are limited, and the quantity of wolffish 
that has been observed in these predators' stomachs is small. There is 
uncertainty regarding potential changes in predator population 
abundances, and it is possible that increases in various predators 
could lead to higher predation rates; thereby, having a more 
significant impact to the DPS. The likelihood of this happening, 
however, is unknown. Thus, the BRT ranked the threat from predation as 
low. There are limited data available on diseases that affect wolffish, 
but there is nothing to suggest that any particular disease is 
impacting the DPS at this time. As such, the BRT ranked the threat from 
disease as very low risk.

Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms

    Currently, there are no direct regulatory mechanisms for wolffish 
in the United States; however, there are regulations for other species 
(e.g., groundfish) which provide indirect benefits through mechanisms 
such as reduced fishing effort and closed areas. The lack of direct 
regulatory mechanisms for the DPS may change in the foreseeable future. 
As stated previously, if Amendment 16 is approved as proposed (e.g., 
includes a ban on possession for commercial and recreational catch), 
then this would directly reduce wolffish mortality. Thus, in evaluating 
the risk posed by the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms 
(Factor D), the BRT determined that there is a moderate risk at this 
time.
    As indicated above, there is a mandatory live release program for 
northern and spotted wolffish in Canada that began in 2004. This 
program provides some protection to Atlantic wolffish from the DPS. 
However, since Atlantic wolffish are a species of special concern, it 
is not known if this program will continue into the future.
    Consequently, the BRT ranked the risk from the inadequacy of 
existing regulatory mechanisms outside of the United States as low. 
While the risk to the DPS from the inadequacy of existing regulatory 
mechanisms in the United States is currently moderate, this is not 
driving the DPS toward imminent risk of extinction or endangerment in 
the foreseeable future due to the wide range occupied by this species 
and the protections afforded indirectly in both the United States and 
Canada.

Other Natural or Manmade Factors

    Finally, the BRT considered all other natural or manmade factors 
that may affect the DPS (Factor E), which included competition/prey 
availability, climate change impacts, ocean acidification, and 
aquaculture/enhancement. When evaluating the risk posed by competition, 
the BRT noted that there may be some competition for shelters during 
reproduction; however, adult wolffish have been observed in the same 
crevices with other species, and the available information indicates 
that they are capable of sharing the available space rather than 
competing for it. Therefore, this most likely is not a significant 
impact to the species. Also, wolffish consume a wide variety of prey. 
Thus, while declines in green urchin populations, a significant prey 
species for wolffish, may pose a localized risk to the DPS, it is not 
significant throughout the entire DPS.
    Wolffish have specific thermal tolerances (e.g., they do not prefer 
temperatures above 10[deg] C), so it is possible that rising water 
temperatures could impact the DPS. However, it is not known whether 
bottom temperatures in the area occupied by the DPS will increase and 
how this might affect the range of the species (e.g., potential for 
range contraction). If a spawning cue is related to temperature, 
changes in ocean temperatures could impact the DPS, but this is also 
not known. The BRT, therefore, concluded that effects from climate 
change are highly uncertain and there is not much known upon which to 
base decisions.
    The impacts from potential ocean acidification are also unknown, 
but impacts to the DPS are not expected within the foreseeable future. 
Currently, there are no aquaculture operations for wolffish in the 
United States, but there are limited aquaculture activities for 
wolffish in Canada. The Canadian researchers are experimenting with 
hybridization with spotted wolffish; however, hybridization between 
these two species occurs in the wild, and therefore, impacts of 
hybridization on the DPS are not known. The BRT ranked the threat to 
the DPS from these other natural and manmade factors as very low. There 
are potential enhancement activities proposed by Canadian researchers 
in Canada using wolffish from the Canadian portion of the DPS. Again, 
the impacts of potential enhancement on the DPS are not known, but 
could raise the risk from very low to low. We concur with the BRT's 
ranking of threats/stressors.
    We agree with the BRT's assessment that there is low risk currently 
associated with Factor A (the present or threatened destruction, 
modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range), Factor B (the 
overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or 
educational purposes, and Factor C (predation and disease) as they 
pertain to the long-term persistence of the species. When evaluating 
Factor D (the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms), we believe 
that wolffish in the United States are not afforded any direct 
protection and a ranking of moderate risk is appropriate at the present 
time. However, we do not believe that the moderate risk posed by the 
inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms in the United States is 
driving the species toward imminent risk of extinction or toward 
becoming endangered in the foreseeable future. While biomass has been 
reduced, the

[[Page 57446]]

DPS occupies a wide variety of habitats in sufficient numbers 
throughout a large range to persist into the foreseeable future. The 
DPS also receives indirect benefits from regulatory mechanisms for 
other groundfish species in the United States and from the live release 
program for wolffish in Canada. We also support a very low ranking for 
Factor E when considering other natural or manmade factors affecting 
the continued existence of the species.

Current and Future Protective Efforts

    As previously mentioned, landings within Canadian waters are 
controlled under an annual quota, and fishers are encouraged to release 
Atlantic wolffish as part of the live-release program for spotted and 
northern wolffish, in place since 2004. Within the U.S. EEZ, wolffish 
have benefited from management measures designed to protect depleted 
groundfish stocks. If Amendment 16 to the NE Multispecies FMP is 
approved as adopted by the NEFMC, a live-release program for both 
commercial and recreational fisheries would be implemented in U.S. 
waters in May 2010, thereby, providing direct protections for the 
species. This would reduce the risk to Atlantic wolffish from both 
commercial and recreational fishing.

Listing Determination

    As mentioned above, the ESA defines an endangered species as any 
species in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion 
of its range, and a threatened species as any species likely to become 
an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a 
significant portion of its range. Section 4(b)(1) of the ESA requires 
that the listing determination be based solely on the best scientific 
and commercial data available, after conducting a review of the status 
of the species and after taking into account those efforts, if any, 
that are being made to protect such species.
    As stated previously, the BRT concluded that Atlantic wolffish in 
Western Atlantic Canada and the United States are discrete and 
significant from other populations of Atlantic wolffish. We have 
identified a Western Atlantic Canada/U.S. DPS consisting of the 
populations in the following oceanic areas: (1) Canada's Scotian Shelf; 
(2) southern Gulf of St. Lawrence; (3) northern Gulf of St. Lawrence; 
(4) southern Newfoundland; and (5) United States. We have considered 
abundance, population age/size structure, population growth rate/
productivity, spatial structure/connectivity, and genetic diversity and 
have concluded that these five demographic variables represent low risk 
to the DPS now and in the foreseeable future. We also do not believe 
that the DPS is at risk now or in the foreseeable future based on 
ranking of the anthropogenic stressors and natural limiting factors 
that are associated with the factors listed in section 4(a)(1) of the 
ESA. The NEFSC's Working Group has concluded that the chances of the 
population falling below the threatened/endangered threshold was very 
low, based on SCALE projections and scenarios. This conclusion supports 
the qualitative threats assessment conducted and summarized by the BRT.
    After assessing the BRT's status review, the Working Group's 
review, and the best available scientific and commercial information 
for the Western Atlantic Canada/U.S. DPS, we have determined that the 
species does not warrant listing as threatened or endangered throughout 
all or a significant portion of its range. Given that the protective 
measures specified in Amendment 16 will not be implemented until May 
2010 and the effectiveness of these measures has not been demonstrated, 
we have, however, concluded that Atlantic wolffish should remain on the 
species of concern list.

    Authority: 16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.

    Dated: October 28, 2009.
Samuel D. Rauch III,
Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, National Marine 
Fisheries Service.
[FR Doc. E9-26573 Filed 11-5-09; 8:45 am]
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